Tonight at 8:30 – Family Album (5th May 1991)

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Family Album was described by Coward as “a sly satire on Victorian hypocrisy”. It’s set in the comfortable drawing room of the Featherways family, who have just returned from their father’s funeral. The atmosphere is decidedly formal to begin with, but when the new head of the household, Jasper (Denis Quilley), suddenly breaks into song for no particular reason it triggers a rapid lightening of mood ….

This one has quite the cast. I never knew that Denis Quilley could sing, but sing he does (as do several other cast members – which explains, in part, why the likes of Bonnie Langford and Jessica Martin appear today). It’s a slight pity that all the songs were clearly pre-recorded (when Jasper launches into the first song, Quilley’s voice suddenly gains a large dollop of recording studio echo) but since this isn’t the sort of playlet where realism is key, let’s not quibble.

Joan Collins has undergone yet another transformation. Sporting a rather uncomfortable set of teeth, I doubt she’s ever looked quite as unglamorous as she does here. She’s cast as Lavinia, the eldest daughter of the family, and the one who – initially at least – is by far the most prim and proper. A spinster, and likely to remain so, she begins by casting a disapproving eye when the others begin to make slightly merry, but after swigging some wine she soon gets into the spirit of things.

This isn’t the play with Collins’ largest role, but Lavinia still manages to make the most important story contribution.

She reveals towards the end that their father had made a new will just before he died, leaving some of his money to his several mistresses and the rest to a new church, which was due to contain a gaudy memorial to himself. Lavinia – with the assistance of Burrows, the butler – destroyed the will, thereby ensuring that the family would all receive their inheritances.

Although it was broadcast nearly thirty years ago, it still slightly takes the breath away to remember this was transmitted on BBC1. It’s hard to imagine such a piece, even with this sort of top quality cast, slotting into the schedule today. Goodness knows what the audience watching at the time made of it – personally I love it, but the way the characters continually break into song with no warning would probably have taken most people by surprise. And maybe it wouldn’t have been a pleasant surprise …

Especially since the opening few minutes would have primed them to expect something quite different – a bleak(ish) drawing room playlet.  The way the rug is pulled from beneath the audience’s feet by the reveal that not only was the late head of the household an incurable letch but also that his children (all seemingly stolid and staid citizens) find it very easy to revert to the innocence of childhood at the drop of a hat, is a little stroke of genius.

Dominic Jephcott and Charles Collingwood are further strong additions to the cast whilst John Alderton seems to having a whale of a time as Burrows, the ancient family retainer. Sporting reasonably convincing old-age make up, Alderton manages to milk each comic moment for everything it’s worth.

I’m happy to report there was no laugh track on this one, so hopefully the remainder of the series will be equally unaffected.

Family Album is an odd treat from a series that continues to surprise and entertain.

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Softly Softly: Task Force – Held for Questioning

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The Task Force are out in numbers, looking for safebreaker Tommy Lee (Norman Jones).  Watt suspects that Lee was responsible for three recent robberies (in the latest, a security guard was shot and injured).  Hawkins brings in Jack Taylor (Denis Quilley), a known associate of Lee – although unlike Lee, Taylor has never been convicted of any crime.  Hawkins is convinced that Taylor knows where Tommy Lee is, but he proves to be a tough nut to crack ….

After a run of indifferent episodes, Robert Barr finally comes up with something very decent.  The clash between Hawkins and Taylor (and later Watt and Taylor) is most watchable, although the story does have one major plot flaw.   Watt strongly suspects that Lee and Taylor are partners and also that Lee will attempt to contact Taylor at the filling station he owns.  If that’s the case, then why bother to arrest Taylor?  They could have simply posted a few men in the vicinity, well hidden, and nabbed Lee when he turned up (which is pretty much what they do in the end anyway).  And since neither Hawkins or Watt manage to get Taylor to talk, the whole evening at the station has to be written off as a complete waste.

Denis Quilley was a heavyweight actor (he enjoyed lengthy spells at the National Theatre aappearing opposite the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud) which means that his casting helps to give Held for Questioning an extra lift.  To begin with, Taylor claims he hasn’t seen Lee for five years.  Later he admits that they have met a few times recently, but that he’s not involved with Lee’s criminal activities.

Taylor maintains an air of amused indifference during his interview with Hawkins.  He rarely seems flustered, meaning that any progress Hawkins makes is agonisingly slow.  There are a few flashpoints but it’s not until Watt turns up that the sparks really start to fly.  Watt asks exactly the same questions, but does so in a highly aggressive manner, causing the first signs of real anger from Taylor.  Windsor and Quilley – facing each other eyeball to eyeball – are both mesmerising in this scene.

There’s also a fascinating clash between Taylor and the duty officer, Chief Inspector Rankin (Michael Griffiths).  Taylor is well-known to the officers at the station, especially Rankin.  When the Chief Inspector pops his head around the interview room door, Taylor takes the opportunity to aim a few will-timed jibes in his direction.  His claim that he was attacked by several officers the last time he was there could be dismissed as simple troublemaking, but Cullen’s arrival confirms that it did actually happen (and officers were suspended).

Given that Taylor’s never been convicted of any crime (up until now) this moment shines a little light on police methods at the time.  Barr’s script doesn’t condone or condemn, but the inference is plain – it’s also spelled out earlier by Hawkins – you may be innocent in the eyes of the law but that doesn’t stop you from being regarded as guilty by the police.  It’s a brief, but disquieting, moment.

Norman Jones, as Lee, doesn’t have a great deal to do as he’s holed up for most of the episode, vainly attempting to contact Taylor.  In fact it’s easy to see how the story could have dispensed with his on-screen appearances completely (a quick message to say that he’d been captured would have sufficed).  Indeed, if the story really wanted to do something a little different then it could have taken place entirely within the confines of the interview room (at first I thought that was the way the episode would go).  A bit of a shame they didn’t go down this route, as all the best scenes do take place within the interview room, everything outside is of secondary importance.

A few minor quibbles apart, this is a fine showcase for Windsor, Bowler and Quilley.